A game of mortals

When future Hall of Famer Reggie White died early on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004, he was 43. While the sporting world mourned the passing of a man who was far greater than the sum of his considerable parts there was, for some, this nagging thought: Another NFL player had died before his time.

White had a disease known as sarcoidosis, a respiratory ailment that affected his sleeping. Steelers center Mike Webster died prematurely, too, at the age of 50 in 2002. A year before, Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer died of heat stroke at the age of 27 -- a death that was later linked to ephedra.

There is an anecdotal belief among observers of the NFL that its players do not live as long as the average American male -- approximately the age of 72. The only extensive report that examined the issue refutes that notion.

In 1994, just before Super Bowl XXVIII, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released the results of a study that was prompted by a request from the NFL Players Association. Professional football players, according to NIOSH, actually live marginally longer than non-football players. Based upon the occurrence of death among men of similar age and race in the general population, 189 deaths would have been expected of the test group, but only 103 occurred.

"There is nothing within the current pattern of death to suggest that football players, as a group, have a shortened life expectancy," said Dr. Sherry Baron, a NIOSH researcher and author of the study's findings.

The study included 6,848 former players in the NFL's pension fund, dating back to 1959. This was, by definition, a young pool of players, only of a few of whom had reached the age of 50.

On the negative side, the study found a substantially increased rate of heart disease in offensive and defensive linemen. Players in the largest body size category -- 64 percent of all linemen -- had a six times greater risk of heart disease than those of normal size.

"Prior to the study," the report stated, "many believed that the average age of death for football players was 55."

The study was met by euphoria by the NFLPA, but a decade after the study, many former NFL players still believe that players die early. Harry Carson, who played middle linebacker for the New York Giants from 1976-88, is among them.

"I've had chest pains, many times, and wondered 'What is this?' " Carson says. "Athletes die at a younger rate than average people -- especially football players."

The study made no claims about the quality of their lives after the game.

The combination of all those accumulated aches and pains and the abrupt absence of widespread adulation is a dangerous combination. A 2001 study by the Center For the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina confirmed long-held suspicions. Nearly 2,500 retired NFL players, with an average of more than six seasons in the league, were polled. The numbers:

  • Sixteen percent said they suffered from arthritis so severe it "often" limited their activities.

  • Eighty-seven percent of the players said they still suffered from depression.

  • Eleven percent said they had been clinically diagnosed with depression.

  • Forty-six percent said they were taking anti-depressant medication.

    According to the Center's study, there is a link between repeated brain trauma and depression. Players who sustained more than five concussions, it found, were three times as likely to suffer from depression than those who didn't.

    The Center's next project: examining what might be a link between NFL service and Alzheimer's disease.

    Greg Garber is senior writer for ESPN.com